An Outsider Visits the Roman Ghetto:
The Past Lives On
The light of Rome is supposed by enthusiasts to be different from that of any other place on earth. During the seven months of my stay there, I often debated with myself whether this was true or merely a tourist’s fable. The conclusion I finally reached was that the light was one of the elements of an atmosphere which made everything at least look different from the same thing anywhere else; here, normal standards are suspended and the improbable can happen and be believed without mental effort or strain. The air, mellow but crystalline and absolutely free—at least to the senses of a city-dwelling American—of soot or smog, bathes objects and people in a diffused and peculiar radiance. Present and past interpenetrate each other, and at last cannot be distinguished: the same sun which shines on that young Italian riding his motorscooter to work, and on that tourist seeking his pleasure, shone on Cicero as he campaigned in the Forum, and on the sturdy Goths of Alaric’s army as they walked around surveying their new conquest.
There are indeed many improbable places to be seen in Rome, and many more improbable people to be found there, but of all the curiosities and relics of a buried or half-buried past which greet the visitor’s eye, one of the strangest is the district still generally called “the Ghetto,” although its walls and gates—the physical ones, that is—were torn down over a century ago. Here we are confronted, not only with an assemblage of ruins such as we may see in any corner of Rome by looking a little below the surface of things, but also with a numerous and crowded community maintaining a sort of fossilized existence, more or less cut off from the strong and complex currents of modern life. This community, as it stands today, is the product of social forces which are not, I think, peculiar to this special place and time, but which have operated here in more clean-cut and obvious fashion than anywhere else: hence its interest for the sociologist.
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